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Éber Freitas Dias
Éber Freitas Dias

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Comparing Elm to Ember Octane and React

Today I stumbled on this article "Comparing Ember Octane and React" on Hacker News.

The article goes to demonstrate how the same application can be built both with React and Ember, going into implementation details and drawing some conclusions from it. The app is a simple Hacker News search that you can test yourself here:

At the end of the article, the author (Chris Garrett, which is an Ember Core team member) writes:

In writing this post, I feel like I got to experience React with hooks much more deeply than the research I've done before, and I enjoyed learning them and working with them. It is an interesting programming model, and while I'm not entirely sold yet (I think I'd still prefer something more akin to Elm personally) I can definitely see why people like them, and what the advantanges are.

That had me wondering: what the Elm version of the same app would look like? So I tried to build it! You can see the ending result here.

Like in the original post, let's take a deeper look at what is going on here.

Getting started

port module Main exposing (main)

import Browser
import Browser.Dom as Dom
import Html exposing (Html, a, button, div, h1, hr, input, label, p, span, strong, text)
import Html.Attributes exposing (disabled, for, href, id, type_, value)
import Html.Events exposing (onClick, onInput)
import Http
import Json.Decode as Decode exposing (Decoder)
import Task


port sendQuery : String -> Cmd msg
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This is how most Elm applications (and files) start. You define the file's module name and explicitly declares what you want to expose and import from other modules. Elm has it's own package manager and when you create a new project, it will install a few basic packages to get you going. We also had to install some extra packages like elm/json and elm/http.

One particular thing about our module is the fact that we start it by saying port module. In case you are not familiar with Elm, it is a purely functional language that can't have side effects. That means we can't, for instance, set things to localStorage from our Elm code. That is where ports come in, but we will talk about it later. At the end of this section, we declare a port named sendQuery that we will use later on.

type alias Story =
    { id : String
    , title : String
    , author : String
    , url : String
    , comments : Int
    , points : Int
    }


type alias Model =
    { input : String
    , lastSearch : String
    , stories : Stories
    }


type Stories
    = Loading
    | Error
    | Stories (List Story)


type Msg
    = NoOp
    | GotInput String
    | Search
    | Dismiss String
    | GotResults (Result Http.Error Stories)
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Here we have our types definitions. Elm is a strong and static typed language. That means we can create our types to help model the application. First, we have two alias types: Story and Model. An alias type just gives a nickname to some other typed structure. That way we can use the compiler to help us write the correct structure every time.

Later we have some custom types: Stories and Msg. Those types will help us to keep a better understanding of our application's state and what we should do about it.

The TEA

The TEA (or The Elm Architecture) is a way to describe how most Elm applications work in terms of how the data flows through our code. It consists of a few basic concepts:

  • We have one global state;
  • That state is rendered using some view function;
  • The view can send messages to some kind of update function (picture a button click or form submission);
  • Finally, the update mutates the state that is re-rendered by the view.

That is it! So let's build those functions:

update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        NoOp ->
            ( model, Cmd.none )

        GotInput i ->
            ( { model | input = i }, Cmd.none )

        Search ->
            if model.input /= model.lastSearch then
                ( { model | lastSearch = model.input, stories = Loading }
                , Cmd.batch
                    [ request model.input
                    , sendQuery model.input
                    , focusSearch
                    ]
                )

            else
                ( model, Cmd.none )

        Dismiss id_ ->
            let
                stories_ =
                    case model.stories of
                        Stories s ->
                            Stories (List.filter (.id >> (/=) id_) s)

                        _ ->
                            model.stories
            in
            ( { model | stories = stories_ }, Cmd.none )

        GotResults res ->
            case res of
                Err e ->
                    let
                        _ =
                            Debug.log "error" e
                    in
                    ( { model | stories = Error }, Cmd.none )

                Ok s ->
                    ( { model | stories = s }, Cmd.none )


view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div [] <|
        h1 [] [ text "My Hacker Stories" ]
            :: searchForm model.input
            ++ stories model.stories


searchForm : String -> List (Html Msg)
searchForm input_ =
    [ label [ for "search" ] [ strong [] [ text "Search:" ] ]
    , input [ id "search", value input_, onInput GotInput, type_ "text" ] []
    , button [ disabled (input_ == ""), onClick Search ] [ text "Submit" ]
    , hr [] []
    ]


stories : Stories -> List (Html Msg)
stories stories_ =
    case stories_ of
        Loading ->
            [ p [] [ text "Loading ..." ] ]

        Error ->
            [ p [] [ text "Something went wrong ..." ] ]

        Stories [] ->
            [ p [] [ text "No results." ] ]

        Stories list ->
            List.map storyItem list


storyItem i =
    div []
        [ span [] [ a [ href i.url ] [ text i.title ] ]
        , text " "
        , span [] [ text i.author ]
        , text " "
        , span [] [ text (String.fromInt i.comments) ]
        , text " "
        , span [] [ text (String.fromInt i.points) ]
        , text " "
        , span [] [ button [ onClick (Dismiss i.id) ] [ text "Dismiss" ] ]
        ]
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Here we have an update function that will receive our model and a message. Remember our types Model and Msg? We are going to use them here. We need to check which Msg we are getting and make the appropriate changes to the Model. And if you are paying attention you can see that we don't just return our Model, but a Cmd msg type (command). Remember when I said Elm can't have side effects? To solve that we have commands, which are a special type that we can handle to the Elm runtime to solve for us. It can be, for instance, an HTTP request like we are doing when Msg is Search. More on that later...

After that, we have a few different functions that will return the type Html. That is different from returning actual HTML, but that is how we implement templates and components with Elm. Using plain functions! The Elm runtime will take care of things and render proper HTML from that.

Now, let's wire it all together:

main : Program String Model Msg
main =
    Browser.element
        { init =
            \query ->
                ( { input = query, lastSearch = query, stories = Loading }
                , Cmd.batch [ request query, focusSearch ]
                )
        , view = view
        , update = update
        , subscriptions = always Sub.none
        }
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The main function is the entry point of our application. It is what the Elm runtime will look for and run once it kicks in. Here we are explicitly saying which functions our application will use for each stage of TEA. The init key is a function that should set up the initial model. Keys view and update are pretty self-explanatory by now. Finally, we have subscriptions that we won't use for this app but if you are interested, take a look at the elm guide.

The missing stuff

Finally we have a few extra functions that will make our interaction with the application more dynamic:

focusSearch : Cmd Msg
focusSearch =
    Task.attempt (\_ -> NoOp) (Dom.focus "search")


request : String -> Cmd Msg
request query =
    Http.get
        { url = "https://hn.algolia.com/api/v1/search?query=" ++ query
        , expect = Http.expectJson GotResults resultsDecoder
        }


resultsDecoder : Decoder Stories
resultsDecoder =
    Decode.field "hits" (Decode.list storyDecoder)
        |> Decode.andThen (Decode.succeed << Stories)


storyDecoder : Decoder Story
storyDecoder =
    Decode.map6 Story
        (Decode.field "objectID" Decode.string)
        (Decode.field "title" Decode.string)
        (Decode.field "author" Decode.string)
        (Decode.field "url" Decode.string)
        (Decode.field "num_comments" Decode.int)
        (Decode.field "points" Decode.int)
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The function focusSearch is just a helper function that returns a command to inform the Elm runtime to focus on an element with a specific id and that is it. That one I straight copied from the Elm guide.

The real important function comes next: request. It receives a query string and creates a command that runs an HTTP request. This is where Elm shines for me. After making a request the runtime will send a new message for the application with some data. In our case we are telling the runtime to return the data with the GotResults message, expecting a JSON that can be successfully decoded with the resultsDecoder function. See, everything in Elm is typed and we can't just receive arbitrary data from the server. How would the compiler know which type of data are we dealing with? That is why we have to decode the JSON that we get, making it fit at a specific type. In our case, we need the JSON to return a valid Stories type.

If you take a look at the way we handle the GotResults message on our update function, you will see that the returning data can either be Ok ... or an Err .... An Err may occur if the HTTP request fails or if the JSON decoding fails.

We still need JS after all...

<html>
<head>
  <style>
    /* you can style your program here */
  </style>
</head>
<body>
  <main></main>
  <script>
    var app = Elm.Main.init({
      node: document.querySelector('main'),
      flags: localStorage.getItem('searchTerm') || 'Elm'
    });

    app.ports.sendQuery.subscribe(query => localStorage.setItem('searchTerm', query));
  </script>
</body>
</html>
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The important bit about the HTML/JS part of our app is how we start it. On the init function call we can pass the value of the current data stored at the localStorage to our application. Take a look at the init function on the Elm side to see how we handle that.

After that, we use the sendQuery port to save the search query every time a new search occurs. Take a look at the Search message handling we do on the update function to see the use to the sendQuery port we defined right at the beginning of our module.

Takeaways

I have no real experience with React or Ember so this section won't be as well informed or in-depth as in the original article is. But let's take a look at how Elm solves some of our problems in a very efficient and easy way.

Custom types are a game-changer

The React implementation on the storiesReducer function will do something like what our update function does. The real problem here is that it uses plain strings as keys for the possible actions it can execute. That is fine until you need more messages/actions.

Because we are using an actual custom type as our message (we could be using strings but that wouldn't help), we need to handle every possible message that there is. If we need more messages we can just add them to our Msg type and the compiler will politely tell us about all the places where we need to handle that new message if we miss something.

Custom types are a game-changer ²

Both on the React and Ember apps you will see that the "model" has a few flags like isLoading or isError. All that those flags are doing is informing the state of the stories we are trying to load. See how we always need to worry about resetting the values of those flags so we don't end up with a view that says that we have an error and we are loading at the same time. Nothing is preventing that from happening...

We can solve that by using a custom type that can represent the state of those stories only once at a time. It can't be Loading and Error at the same time, so we have certainty that our view will always render the right thing no matter what.

JSON decoding

We have a bug in this app. See... A story title or author can be a null value coming back from the API call. If you open up the React or Ember apps and search for "elmish" for instance, you will get a few funny looking lines. That is because JavaScript won't stop you from accessing data that don't exist on a given object, rendering a pretty confusing and uninformative list of... things.

That can't happen with Elm. Besides the fact that we can use alias types to inform our compiler about the shape of some structures, when receiving data from the outside world it has to pass through a decoding process and that decoding can either work or fail: Elm will force us to handle both situations or it won't compile our program. Search for "elmish" on the Elm version of the app and you will see the message "Something went wrong ...". That is because our decoder only decodes strings for the title key, and if that key is null on the JSON side, it won't decode at all.

We could then update our decoder to handle those situations, maybe making the title key a Maybe String, and that would force us to handle the fact the title can either be Just ... something or Nothing in our view function. We could never reproduce those silly and confusing lines you get from using "plain" JavaScript.

A simple take

Hooks, components, tracked properties, actions, and so on... JS-land apps can have a lot of concepts that require time to learn and master. Elm, on the other hand, is pretty simple. Despite its somewhat cryptic syntax, if you never dealt with anything like it, Elm introduces very few concepts: everything is a function, and the way you make your application work is through the iteration of TEA, just like that.


I fell like I'm having a very superficial take on top of such a well informed and well-written article like the one this is based on, but hopefully, I succeeded at showing how Elm would solve similar problems pointing at the exciting things it brings to the table.

What am I missing from my list of takeaways? Is there any place where the React/Ember solutions are better? Please, let me know in the comments section. Cheers!

Discussion (4)

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macsikora profile image
Pragmatic Maciej

Hi Eber,
thanks for this great article.

As I am fan of Elm also I think you are missing some points in the Elm benefits. So I will put my view here.

The real problem here is that it uses plain strings as keys for the possible actions it can execute

Yes, in JS generally there is no way to make such approach safe. But in TypeScript you can force compiler to check if all options were handled.

Both on the React and Ember apps you will see that the "model" has a few flags like isLoading or isError

The thing is that the original author took that route as the simplest, but it doesn't mean we cannot make the model close to the Elm. We can use object literals and model Discriminant Unions. It would like smth like:

type Stories
    = { status: 'none' }
    | {status: 'loading'}
    | {status: 'error'}
    | {status: 'success', data: Story[]}

This is TypeScript, but you get the point.

We have a bug in this app. See... A story title or author can be a null value coming back from the API call

Yes but this bug can be fixed by simple condition. And in TypeScript we can model the type as Nullable - type | null and compiler enforce the check. We can even make Optional in JS/TS land, I don't prefer it though but its possible. More here - Maybe just Nullable

Despite its somewhat cryptic syntax, if you never dealt with anything like it, Elm introduces very few concepts: everything is a function ...

I agree with you 100% that Elm is superior language over JavaScript and TypeScript. And the superiority is in simplicity. Yes language is small, simple, there is in most one way of doing staff, one possible compiler, one possible code style and so on. The problem with that is - many devs have hard time to switch from c-type language with brackets and statements into expression based, for many it is a barrier which is hard to overcome. Elm requires to change the mindset.

Also for some things Elm looks very cumbersome, as it is pure language we cannot just make side-effect. So such simple tasks like - get current time are far more difficult than in JS land. Yes I know why, but for many such trade-off not pays of and I see the point. We are quite far away from the metal, and when in React/Ember we can just make some "kernel" code whenever we need, in Elm is not so simple.

What I want to say, despite the love I have to Elm, there are trade-offs which can be hard to accept for many.

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eberfreitas profile image
Éber Freitas Dias Author

Hi Maciej,

Thank you so much for your comments! I have only a couple of things I want to comment on...

Yes, in JS generally there is no way to make such approach safe. But in TypeScript you can force compiler to check if all options were handled.

The keyword for me here is "can". In Elm, even if I have chosen to use plain strings for my messages I still would need to account for all of the possibilities, ultimately using a catch-all condition (maybe TS does that as well? I don't have any significant experience with it). Anyway, that is something that Elm will force me to do, I don't have the option not to and for me that is a major pro.

TS is a huge step forward from plain JS but TS alone won't prevent you from doing things that might hurt you in the future. Add to that the possibility of using the any type and things might derail pretty quickly. Despite the possibility of writing correct code, TS won't really prevent you from writing bad code at all and the beauty of Elm for me is that it makes really hard to do so.

Yes I know why, but for many such trade-off not pays of and I see the point.

Yeah, I think you are right. For me what clicked was the idea that I'm paying upfront a smaller price for something that could cost me much more in the future. So a few things might actually be cumbersome to deal with, but it pays off in the long run.

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abequar profile image
Ramires

Lindo, Inteligente e Elmantástico!!!!!!!!!!!

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eberfreitas profile image
Éber Freitas Dias Author

I'm a LIE!